A Classic Returns to the Screen

Saving the world – indeed, the Universe – is quite a challenge, especially when it seems to be placed squarely on the shoulders of one individual. But, through the use of unconventional means, such as availing ourselves of remarkable phenomena like the ability to travel through time, there’s no telling what we might accomplish, as seen in a 2001 cult classic that has returned to the big screen in a 15th anniversary edition, “Donnie Darko” (web site, trailer), also available on DVD, Blu-ray disk and video on demand.

When psychologically troubled teen Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) is warned by an imaginary friend – a giant, ferocious-looking rabbit named Frank (James Duval) – that the world is coming to an end in 28 days, he struggles to understand what it means and why he’s been given that message. With the aid of his parents (Mary McDonnell, Holmes Osborne), his therapist (Katharine Ross), his girlfriend (Jena Malone) and his science teacher (Noah Wyle), as well as the writings of an eccentric elderly recluse (Patience Cleveland), he attempts to sort out his circumstances. He draws upon abilities like his budding sentience, his awareness of synchronicities and a growing sense of confidence to get to the bottom of what’s transpiring. But it’s a challenge made all the more difficult by the interference of a busybody teacher (Beth Grant), a slick motivational speaker (Patrick Swayze) and a pair of bullies (Seth Rogen, Alex Greenwald). Through it all, he hopes to come up with a solution that gives meaning to his efforts and to his life.

To reveal more would be verging on spoiler territory, but suffice it to say that the result is one of the most unusual, thought-provoking films of the past several decades, the kind of picture that invariably must be watched multiple times to grasp everything it has to say about metaphysics, spirituality, religion, science, morality and mental health. Although a bit cryptic for its own good at times, the film’s superb lead performance, crisp screenplay, deftly employed humor and excellent ʼ80s-based soundtrack (featuring the likes of Tears for Fears, Duran Duran, the Church and Echo & the Bunnymen) nevertheless make for an intriguing cinematic package, one that those who appreciate the offbeat are sure to enjoy.

On the Radio This Week 

Join host Frankie Picasso and me this Thursday, April 27, at 1 pm ET for the next Movies with Meaning segment on Frankiesense & More radio. We’ll talk about several current film releases and other movie news. Tune in live or listen to the on-demand podcast for some lively movie talk!

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The Best of Movies with Meaning – “Youth”

The meaning of life is something that has mesmerized, perplexed and confounded mankind throughout the ages. And, much of the time, we come away from asking this question with no definitive conclusions. But making the effort to find answers is ultimately what counts, especially before the end arrives, an undertaking pursued in earnest by a colorful cast of characters in the moving cinematic meditation, “Youth” (web site, trailer), available on DVD, Blu-ray disk and video on demand.

British composer and orchestra conductor Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine), former maestro of the Venice Symphony, has spent years vacationing at a luxury spa in the Swiss Alps, enjoying the exquisite scenery and the company of his long-time friend, Hollywood filmmaker Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel). In some ways, the octogenarians have a lot in common, such as years of memories, mutual prostate problems, and the marriage of Fred’s daughter, Lena (Rachel Weisz), to Mick’s son, Julian (Ed Stoppard). But, in other ways, the pair couldn’t be more different; Fred is perfectly content to kick back and enjoy his retirement in seclusion, while Mick remains active and in the public eye, working on yet another new movie.

Long-time friends Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine, left) and Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel, right) share memories and good times while vacationing together at an exclusive Swiss Alps resort in director Paolo Sorrentino’s “Youth.” Photo by Gianni Fiorito, courtesy © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

Despite Fred’s insistence that he’s put his working life to rest, there are those who try nudging him back onto the conducting podium. Lena, for example, calls her father “apathetic,” urging him to become more active musically as a means to remain vital, aware and alive. And then there’s Queen Elizabeth’s emissary (Alex Macqueen), who informs the maestro that Her Majesty would like to bestow the honor of knighthood upon him in exchange for conducting a command performance in celebration of Prince Philip’s birthday.

In both instances, however, Fred flatly refuses. He becomes particularly incensed when the emissary reveals the Queen’s request that he conduct his signature composition, Simple Songs, a piece the Prince is particularly fond of. But it’s also a work that holds personal – and painful – significance for Fred, and the thought of performing it again, even for a command performance and with the collaboration of famed soprano Sumi Jo (as herself), troubles him deeply, for reasons he’s highly reluctant to admit.

Lena Ballinger (Rachel Weisz), daughter of a former orchestra conductor, encourages her retired father to keep active to remain vital, one of the principal themes of the emotive release, “Youth.” Photo by Gianni Fiorito, courtesy © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

Mick, meanwhile, continues actively working on his new film with a coterie of young screenwriters (Nate Dern, Alex Beckett, Mark Gessner, Tom Lipinski, Chloe Pirrie) whose wide-eyed enthusiasm helps keep him young. However, despite Mick’s insistence on remaining active, he’s also aware that the years are catching up with him. So, with that in mind, he’s intent on making this film his testament, a consummate expression of who he is and the pinnacle of his artistry. He envisions the picture as a showcase for his favorite actress, Brenda Morel (Jane Fonda), an aging but prolific and profoundly versatile star with whom he has worked on many previous occasions. In doing all this, Mick’s clearly placing a lot of pressure on himself, but, with the clock winding down – and his health becoming questionable – he’s committed to seeing things through on this project while he’s still able.

As Fred and Mick attempt to sort out these matters, they also have ample opportunities to sort out their feelings about their lives. They frequently lounge by the pool or go on leisurely mountain walks, engaging in philosophical discussions about everything from their work to their families, their friendship, their love lives, their emotions, their regrets and, perhaps most importantly, what to do with the time they have left, all in hopes of finding some meaning from it.

Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), a young actor seeking to find his voice, looks to draw inspiration from the wisdom of elders to bring meaning to his work in director Paolo Sorrentino’s “Youth.” Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures, © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

In their attempts at arriving at meaningful conclusions about these issues, Fred and Mick often draw upon the examples set by other guests at the spa, such as Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), a young actor desperately seeking to find his voice as a performer, the spark that will give meaning to his career. Additional inspiration comes from other visitors, such as the recently crowned Miss Universe (Madalina Ghenea), an aspiring child violinist (Lee Artin Boschin), an ever-smiling Buddhist monk (Dorji Wangchuk), and an obese, middle-aged South American celebrity (Roly Serrano) in failing health who valiantly fights to stay vital. Even the resort’s employees have something to offer, such as the insights of a shy but proficient mountain-climbing instructor (Robert Seethaler), an amusing staff physician (Wolfgang Michael) and an intuitive young masseuse (Luna Mijovic).

Over the course of their stay, Fred and Mick’s vacation turns out to be as much an exercise in personal revelation as it is an enjoyable respite, and what they find out about themselves surprises as much as it enlightens. One can only hope that whatever newfound understanding they attain will serve them well as they move forward into the future – one that’s likely going to be just as uncertain now as it was when they were younger.

Aging screen idol Brenda Morel (Jane Fonda) discusses her latest film project with a long-time friend and collaborator, a filmmaker near the end of his career, in “Youth.” Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures, © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

“Youth” is a sublime, thoughtful treatise about aging, what we do with the years we have and how well we understand it all as we move through the process. The picture stylistically recalls director Paolo Sorrentino’s previous offering, the Oscar-winning best foreign language feature, “The Great Beauty” (“La grande bellezza”) (2013). With its gorgeous cinematography, its superb performances by Keitel and Fonda, its diverse and emotive musical score, and its deftly nuanced, beautifully layered writing, the film is a feast for the senses and leaves viewers with much to think about in its wake. Despite a few slow passages in the first hour, “Youth” tends to grow on you the further you get into it, effectively wiping away any memories of that minor shortcoming. Allow yourself to be moved by the experience, and you’ll come away richly rewarded.

For its efforts, “Youth” received a modest share of accolades, including a Palme d’Or nomination at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, the event’s highest honor. The film also earned two very deserving Golden Globe Award nominations for Fonda’s superb supporting actress performance and for the picture’s signature musical piece, Simple Song 3, an honor also bestowed on the composition in the Critics Choice and Academy Award competitions.

When we reach the end of the line, many of us would like to hope we come away from the experience having learned something meaningful about life and, more importantly, about ourselves. But doing so requires some effort on our part to assess how it all came into being, a process that, for what it’s worth, intrinsically begins with each of us and what we believe. By regularly taking stock of this, we increase the likelihood of getting the most out of the experience. To be sure, life truly is what we make of it, and films like this serve as valuable reminders of that. We can only hope we heed that advice while we still have the chance to do so.

For a complete review, click here.

Copyright © 2017, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.